Iowans struggle to make football safer in light of CTE study

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Brenda Easter awoke Tuesday to news that was sobering but hardly surprising.

A Boston University researcher had discovered that the brains of 110 former NFL players — all but one she studied — showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The degenerative disease is believed to be caused by punishing blows to the head. 

It’s a condition Easter, of Indianola, was devastated to witness firsthand when her son Zac’s life unraveled after repeated concussions, eventually culminating in his suicide at age 24 in late 2015. 

“We’re on the verge of an epidemic,” said Easter, who started a charity called CTE Hope after her son’s death and is dedicated to finding a way to make sports like football safer. “The data that was released is telling a story, and we just need to listen.”

Myles and Brenda Easter hold the Indianola football  jersey of their late son Zac in their home this winter. Zac committed suicide in December 2015 and was later discovered to have suffered from CTE after repeated concussions. The Easters have formed a non-profit to help find better diagnosis and treatment of concussions.

The data compiled by Dr. Ann McKee and released Tuesday, a neuropathologist at BU, revealed:

  • Of 111 brains belonging to former NFL players, 110 had CTE.
  • In the 91 brains of men who had played in the Canadian Football League, semi-professionally, or just in college or high school, 66 displayed CTE, with more severe effects evident in those who played beyond high school.

The brains were donated by families who suspected their loved ones suffered from CTE. But the results were striking nonetheless and will embolden efforts to make high school football safer in Iowa. 

“It tells me these athletes’ brains weren’t healed properly” before being allowed to return to action, Easter said. “It tells me that we need to do something now that better detects how injured the brain really is.”

That’s an effort CTE Hope has already undertaken, led by Mike Hadden, a veteran athletic trainer at Simpson College. Hadden is doing research with local athletes aimed at finding a biomarker in the saliva that will provide a quick and cost-effective way to diagnose concussions. Other researchers are working to try to find a way to diagnose CTE in the living — which currently isn’t possible.

McKee’s study included Oskaloosa native and former Iowa football player Tyler Sash. Sash went on to play for the New York Giants before suffering a fifth concussion that ended his playing career. In 2015, he died of an overdose of pain medications after two years of what his family described as erratic behavior. His brain revealed CTE.

“Now it makes sense,” his mother Barney told the New York Times. “The part of the brain that controls impulses, decision-making and reasoning was damaged badly.” 

McKee’s findings weren’t startling to anyone on the front lines of the concussion issue. But her research and other high-profile case studies of CTE sufferers have led to some football stars giving up the sport. Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, 26, abruptly quit Thursday, days before training camp. A doctoral student in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Urschel suffered a concussion two years ago. ESPN reported that his decision was related to the BU study.

In recent years, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah and several peers have also retired while still in their 20s, citing concussion concerns. Other prominent former players, such as Warren Sapp and Matt Blair (who played at Iowa State) have gone public with their fears that they are living with CTE.

Concussion concerns are trickling down to the youth and high school level, Easter said. Her son was a hard-hitting linebacker whose first diagnosed concussion came after a high school game. She said, through her nonprofit, she is hearing from parents questioning whether to let their children play football.

“I’m horrified every time an athlete runs out on a field on a Friday night. We don’t know who the next Zac is going to be,” Easter said.

She said her football-loving family — husband Myles and sons Myles Jr. and Levi — made a unanimous decision recently: “Until we can figure out how to protect the athletes, our grandchildren won’t play football.”

Participation in Iowa high school football declined by about 250 boys from 2014 to 2015, according to the most recent data provided by the National Federation of State High School Associations. The association said 19,600 athletes played high school football in Iowa in 2015. 

Alan Beste, executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, said safety is emphasized more than it’s ever been, starting with teaching football players to tackle without impacting their heads. He said Iowa has been involved with concussion safety since the late 1960s when spearing was outlawed, a move that occurred when national rules still allowed that method of tackling.

“That probably has created the biggest reduction in the number of concussions,” Beste said of less violent tackling techniques.

Greg Schoon, a former Iowa State player who coaches at Des Moines East, said education of the dangers of concussions has increased dramatically.

"Twenty years ago, I didn't know what a concussion was. It was a headache," Schoon said. “Everybody's much more aware, from players and coaches, to trainers and parents.”

But an attempt by the Iowa Legislature to mandate the presence of athletic trainers at every high school football, soccer and wrestling competition has failed in the last two sessions. The holdup has been money.

“It’s one of those bills that I’m going to push for the next session and the next session until I get it through. It’s important that we celebrate our brain and not just our athletic ability,” said state Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo, who sponsored the most recent such bill along with Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids.

Their efforts never made it out of the committee stage this year.

The BU study provides Brown-Powers with more ammunition, she said.

“I’m definitely going to use it and say, ‘Look at the numbers. We’re not making this up,’” Brown-Powers said.

She said her approach in the next session will be to keep the bill from getting loaded down with amendments or folded into the omnibus education bill, both of which proved to be obstacles this year. Brown-Powers said she’ll also encourage school districts to seek out health professionals who might be willing to volunteer their services at sporting events, if money is an issue.

At the major-college level, where money isn’t in short supply, the medical staffing is extensive, said Dr. Andrew Peterson. He founded the University of Iowa’s concussion clinic and is on the sideline at every Hawkeye football game. In addition, the Big Ten Conference requires an athletic trainer to be stationed in the press box and act as a “spotter.” That person can relay valuable information to Peterson in real time as he assesses the severity of injuries. 

The Big 12 adopted a concussion policy to bring it in lockstep with the NCAA's guidelines in 2015. That is centered on concussion detection and management and educating players, coaches and others on their responsibility in reporting injuries. 

“The culture around concussions has really changed, especially around the college level,” Peterson said. “Players understand the importance. Teammates don’t want them out there anymore if they’re showing signs of a concussion. Coaches don’t want them playing. We have no problem pulling an athlete if we suspect something is wrong.”

Peterson reported last fall that there were only two or three concussions suffered by the 115 members of the Hawkeye football team. A low number like that is hard to sustain, however, because concussions “tend to come in clusters,” Peterson said.

“Some of it is dumb luck,” he said.

Iowa has added a fourth athletic trainer to be present at every football practice this fall, Peterson said. The university also requires a trainer at the practices of every other athletic team. That helps keep concussed athletes from returning to play before they’re ready.

Hadden said requiring athletic trainers to monitor high school sporting events is the first step he would take in dealing with the concussion issue.

“I can’t believe parents aren’t beating down the superintendents’ doors already,” he said.

He also advocates not letting children play tackle football until the eighth grade.

Easter reiterated that the goal of her charity is to preserve football, but only if scientists can find a way to prevent more stories like Zac’s, or the NFL players involved in McKee’s study.

“I’m just praying that people who have kids or loved ones in a sport that has high contact, that they’re taking into account the potential long-term impacts and that they’re watching their children diligently,” Easter said.

“The naysayers say ‘it will never happen to me’ but I’ll tell you straight up: We don’t know who it can affect. We don’t know when. Every day they let their child get out on the field, they’re at risk. Period.”

Register staff writer John Naughton contributed to this story.